Learning from Partnerships at the California Academy of Sciences

The room is noisy, with several tables covered in frosting, broken pretzels and sticky gum drops. Guests walk around with messy towers made of cereal bars and wafer cookies, proudly taking pictures of their creations. One father, swept up in a competition with the other members of his family, rushes to a table with an empty chair. He comments that while his family visits frequently, this is the most fun he can remember having here. The scene is full of energy – and a little chaos – with smiling participants fully engaged in the activity.

This is neither an exercise in gingerbread house building nor an edible sculpture contest. It is a Saturday afternoon in early July at the California Academy of Sciences, and guests are learning about the structural components of satellites. Volunteers from the Bay Area section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) are stationed at each table to provide one-on-one interactions. As guests move down the row of tables, they add pieces to their structures and learn the science behind each satellite component from a scientist who works in the aerospace industry.

This build-a-satellite activity is just one of the ways that the California Academy of Sciences is partnering with external organizations to provide unexpected, hands-on, and science-rich experiences to visitors. The goal of this focus on partnerships is twofold: the Academy aims to challenge visitor expectations of what can happen during an Academy visit while simultaneously deepening community relationships. While the partnership model is well established in the museum field, with a broad range of museums developing innovative programming with external partners, these programs often happen at specially carved-out times and take the form of evening or special events (like the Academy’s own NightLife, an evening program for 21+ visitors). Planning partner programs during public hours is not uncharted territory, but it is an ongoing learning experience for the museum and its various stakeholders. Since visitor expectations and physical spaces differ widely from museum to museum, what works at one institution may not be a good indicator of what will work at another. As a 161-year-old institution with an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, natural history hall, and active research division, the Academy is certainly unique. Within this distinctive and highly varied context, experimentation and constant learning are central to creating successful programs.

An openness to try partnerships as they present themselves can yield wonderful results. In November 2013, the Academy partnered with a contemporary opera company, Opera Parallèle, to host a production of Peter Maxwell-Davies’ The Spider’s Revenge, a children’s opera with a message of respecting nature. Opera Parallèle worked with a school in need of an arts program and spent the fall semester teaching opera to fourth, fifth and sixth grade students. While less participatory for the general public than certain other programs, the opportunity allowed the student performers to experience the Academy in a new and nuanced way. In an intersection of the partner organizations’ work, students met Academy entomologist Charles Griswold to see spiders up close and to learn about some of the tools he uses in the field before taking the stage for their performance. The opera attracted new audiences for the Academy, including supporters of Opera Parallèle and families who typically do not visit. For staff and visitors alike, the museum’s hosting of an opera performed by children during public hours presented an initial shock, but a full preview and a standing-room-only performance suggested that visitors were interested and willing to try this new experience.

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Photo credit: Steve DiBartolomeo.

Artists, performers, and scientists are constantly looking for places to share their work with new audiences, and partnerships present a range of benefits that can incentivize organizations to collaborate. Often a parking spot, something to eat, and the chance to reach a new audience is enough to convince a group that partnering is a good idea. When organizations lower barriers to participation, groups have fewer reasons to say no to a new partnership. Museums are unique spaces, and one element of this removal of barriers is the communication of guidelines and expectations that allow partners to succeed within the context of a particular museum or institution. Recently, the Academy hosted a family festival with a theme not often covered in the museum’s everyday programs – neuroscience. The theme made it necessary to recruit outside partners, many of whom were scientists, researchers or medical doctors used to presenting to academic audiences rather than to the general public. In order to encourage successful engagement with the museum’s visitors, Public Programs staff hosted a workshop that shared insights on the Academy’s audiences and allowed the participants to practice visitor-led, interactive engagements. A professor attending the workshop with her graduate students commented that she commonly gave talks at conferences, but had never considered this type of hands-on approach to teaching others about her work. Ultimately, the group taught festival visitors about their research on autism by encouraging them to play with toys in new ways. As visitors crawled through a tunnel made of cardboard boxes, they were given a uniquely kinesthetic approach to learning about the applications of scientific research – an experience that reflected the complementary expertise of museum staff and the scientific research community.

Once these kinds of guidelines are established and shared, giving up a degree of control is crucial to working with outside partners. Several examples from the Academy’s work point to the possibilities of shared-authority models for this work. For example, when the Academy searched for a group to perform at an ocean-themed festival in March, the University of San Francisco’s Dance Generators expressed interest in performing an interactive, water-based program. The group, comprised of dancers ranging in age from the teens through the eighties, suggested an audience-influenced, participatory dance performance called Oceans MOVE. At a science institution, the idea of teaching ocean conservation through this type of dance performance was difficult to conceptualize at first. Nevertheless, Academy staff helped determine theme-appropriate science content for the performance, and then gave the Dance Generators full control over performance development. Trusting the groups’ expertise in interactive dance performances ultimately created a performance that tackled a typical Academy topic in a new and highly generative way. Dancers discussed the diversity of animals found in the waters off the California coast by mimicking the movements of elephant seals, anchovies, and grey whales. The group invited guests to shout out movements that could represent crabs and tuna while director Natalie Greene interwove tidbits about the importance of these animals. The crowd moved and interacted with the performers, and participants even helped to create a giant Pacific octopus made out of dancers. Three performances later, the Academy is looking for new ways to partner with Dance Generators for their 2014/15 season.

Inevitably, the risks of experimenting with new programs do not always pay off. Unlike tried and true programs, there are no guaranteed attendance figures, visitor interest measures, or learning outcomes. A children’s musician who commanded a strong performance during the holidays may not attract an audience during a science-based program. A labor-intensive set-up for a five-minute cooking demo may feel like a failure. However, rather than representing failure, each new program provides valuable insight into how an institution can best stretch the boundaries of programmatic experimentation. Evaluation is a necessity throughout the process, even if the results are not positive; the benefits of giving up control to external partners often outweigh initially negative outcomes in the long run. Trying new things can teach an institution more about its audience, lead to important relationships with other community organizations and expand an institutional brand, as has been the case with the Academy. Commit to learning from every experience, and the journey to successful program partnerships becomes worthwhile.